Possible strike or lockout for MRU
By Alex Luong, Staff Writer
Mount Royal University (MRU) is facing the possibility of a faculty strike and work stoppage as the institution and the Mount Royal University Faculty Association (MRFA) are still struggling to reach a new contract agreement.
Is it going to happen?
“Hard to say at this point.” This is what Lee Easton, president of MRFA had to say, when asked on the possibility of a strike or work stoppage. “But the window of opportunity to arrive at a collective agreement is certainly closing.”
The MRFA is currently in the collective bargaining process with Mount Royal’s Board of Governors. Collective bargaining is the process in which the union (the MRFA) and employer (MRU) are negotiating the renewal of a previous collective agreement. The negotiations revolve around the issues of wages and working conditions. The last contract expired in June 2020, and negotiations have been going on for over 22 months.
“Let’s be clear. Our preference is to get a collective agreement and just keep teaching, we don’t want to see our students’ learning interrupted. We don’t want to see a prolonged work stoppage that makes students worry about getting their academic year,” Easton stated.
Easton also points out that a strike isn’t the only option. The institution could also initiate a lockout and keep the faculty from working until their terms are agreed to.
The MRU Coalition Committee, a community that represents the MRFA, Mount Royal Staff Association (MRSA) and Student’s Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU) released a statement about how a work stoppage, whether it is a strike or a lockout, could damage the campus community.
“We are concerned about the adversity of a work stoppage specifically on students, who have already had to deal with the effects of the pandemic, and the impact on staff employees who may have to cross picket lines,” the statement said.
They urge both parties to use the formal mediation process to find a common ground on the issues.
The Reflector has also tried to reach out to MRU President and Vice-chancellor Tim Rahilly. They said that their Board of Governors is still in active negotiations with MRFA at the time of writing.
“The current contract expired on June 30, 2020 but will remain in force until a new agreement is reached. Collective agreement negotiations rightly require confidentiality and good faith bargaining. To that end, we will not comment on the specifics of our negotiations,” their statement said.
What is the strike about?
According to Easton, issues on the table are wages, working conditions and job security. Easton also states that a variety of factors including the provincial budget cuts as well as the pandemic are contributing to less than ideal working conditions.
“All faculty have found that workloads are increasing, some of that is related to the pandemic, but it’s also really related to the fact that [we are] seeing more students coming into the institution… it means larger classes,” he said.
Salary and compensation are the major issues on the table for the union among other concerns such as workload and contract faculty.
“We certainly are seeing more retirements, we are aware that people are leaving the institution and we should be replacing those people. And we should be addressing the fact that we have a growing number of students, and you can’t keep doing the same job with the same number of people and have the same quality of education that students would come to expect when they come here,” Easton said.
As the president of the MRFA and a professor in the department of English languages and cultures, Easton juggles the responsibilities of both positions and can sympathize with other faculty members.
As the MRFA president, he is constantly asked questions from contractual faculty regarding job security or eligibility for professional development opportunities and funds. As a professor in the English department, he faces challenges like increased class sizes similar to other professors.
“A writing class would have 25 students, and then it went to 30. And now, it’s up to 32. And in some cases, 33. And frankly, in a writing class, it’s the amount of work that students do and want feedback on, and need feedback that gets increasingly hard to deliver, when you’ve got seven extra students in your classroom right? So where is the quality? Where is the education that people, the students, want when they come and they find themselves in increasingly larger classes, right?” Easton said.
As outlined by SAMRU and the MRFA, if both parties cannot reach an agreement or the bargaining process is exhausted, the two week cooling-off period begins. When that period ends, both the university and the association will hold a vote to decide if they will hold a lockout or a strike. This would mean that the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) would be activated and MRU would launch a dedicated website with a detailed Q&A that would constantly be updated. They would regularly update the students, staff and faculty visitors.
Easton expresses his and the faculty’s intention of getting a collective agreement and to keep teaching without interrupting the students’ learning. He says the longer this issue goes on, the bigger the impact will be on students.
He stresses that the association is doing their best to get a collective agreement and what they would want is for their employer to come to the table and make meaningful proposals that would ensure no work stoppage.
When asked on how students can support the faculty’s cause, Easton said, “Honestly, tell the board of governors chair Alex Pourbaix to send their team to negotiate. Contact Tim Rahilly. Dial him to send his team to negotiate and make meaningful offers.”
Similar to the situation at MRU, there is also a possibility of a strike at the University of Lethbridge. The school’s administration and faculty have been in negotiations for nearly 600 days after the faculty’s collective agreement expired on June 20, 2020. Recently, the strike with the faculty at Concordia University of Edmonton has ended as a deal was reached in the beginning of the winter term.
If the strike does happen, it will be the first work stoppage in the history of MRU.